what does it even mean to be catholic

What does it even mean to be Catholic?

This is a question I have been wrestling with most of my life, but has resurfaced in the past few days. Catholic chatter is full of people debating the Catholicity of our new President, Joe Biden, questioning his devotion to the Catholic faith because of one thing: his stance on abortion.

Listen, abortion is an important issue. If you think of babies in the womb as little humans (which Catholics do), it is hard to support that loss of life.

But this is not a post about abortion, this is a post about being Catholic.

One of the primary identifying characteristics of Catholicism is care for and dignity of life, all life. This means that in almost every single guidance from the Catholic church, we find a reference to dignity of life, or care for life, or support for life. Often, that guidance leans towards the common good. What is generally good for all is usually good for one. But not always.

Consider the church’s stance on war. The church abhors killing, but admits there are circumstances, when all diplomatic attempts have failed, that war may still be necessary to protect society. (CCC 2308) In this case, protecting the common good will mean loss of life, sometimes innocent life, yet the church allows for it, devastating as it may be. I can trust that the church is right and wonder if there are other solutions.

Abortion is the loss of the most innocent of lives, so the church, as we would expect, condemns its practice (CCC 2270-2275). As a society, if we are okay with killing the most innocent, we can, in theory, be okay with killing anybody, and the church will always guide us towards protection of life as a common good. But if you’ve spent any time talking with women who have considered abortion, you know that many of the reasons women seek abortion are the result of other societal evils, which means there are other moral issues to consider. I can both trust that the church is right and wonder if understanding and correcting the underlying causes will more successfully and pastorally care for women.

Sometimes the church even changes its guidance. The church’s stance on the death penalty was updated in May of 2018 due to new understandings of mental health and development of more secure detention facilities. (CCC 2267 updated May 2018) Both the needs of the common good and the individual can now be met because of advances we have made as a society, avoiding death altogether.

As Catholics, we look to the church to guide us, but the complexity of moral issues is one of the reasons an infallible playbook does not exist. Instead, fully recognizing that an organization cannot lovingly guide every single individual situation, the church allows for and encourages us to learn to trust our moral conscience. (CCC 1776)

Reliance on a moral conscience is one of my favorite aspects of the Catholic faith, but with it comes great responsibility. If you want to reliably turn to your moral conscience, you must be willing to do the work, and that means learning how to listen to God and understanding why the church teaches what it teaches.

The church exists to help us better love. At its best, church teaches us how to love God, and how to love ourselves and others just as God loves us.

I trust the Catholic church to help me form my beliefs. Numerous theologians and holy people have come before me to guide the way and I lean on them when I am unsure of what to do. 

But I also know the church has failed us in traumatic ways over the centuries. This leaves room for valid questioning, room for doubt, and room for us to dig in to more fully understand the issues that are core to our humanity. It is in these times of failure that a moral conscience becomes a beacon of light.

So, is this what it means to be Catholic? Do my hours of theological education and contemplation on church teaching make me more Catholic than another? Does my questioning of a teaching of the church make me less Catholic? Of course not.

A baby on her Baptism day is just as Catholic as Joe Biden and I are. What we all have in common as Catholics is our love for life and for loving the people in our lives through the grace of God.

Life is not simple. Faith is not simple. God is certainly not simple, but we know for certain that God is love.

So love, I shall. Always.

*CCC – Catechism of the Catholic Church

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